Human Rights Council

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The 15th Session of the Human Rights Council

13 September to 1st October 2010

The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, opened the session by addressing current human rights situations of great concern. For example, the ongoing violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia are constant reminders of "chronic human rights situations". While complimenting the Mexican government for its efforts to combat violence within the country, the High Commissioner demanded that an investigation on the death of 70 immigrants from Central America begin. Addressing the United States, anti-terrorist measures must coincide with the human rights of terrorist suspects. Mrs. Pillay finished her statement by addressing the need for open and transparent elections.

The Council held interactive dialogues on the following themes: Children in Armed Conflict, the situation in Sudan, the Special Rapporteur (SR) on Cambodia and the independent expert on Burundi and on Somalia. The Council also heard from SRs on contemporary forms of slavery, the working Group on mercenaries, international solidarity, toxic waste, safe drinking water and sanitation and extreme poverty, SR on indigenous people and racism and finally an annual discussion on Integration of Gender Perspectives.

Turning to specific interactive dialogues, the UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, called for improvements in the fight against sexual violence on children at war. Individual complaints must be addressed, as children as young as seven years old are affected. The well-being of children is a collective responsibility and internally displaced children in armed conflicts face discrimination in their legal and civic rights. They face stigmatization, lack basic resources (housing, food, sanitation), and often viewed as "second-class citizens". While refugee camps must encourage child education and protect vulnerable children from recruitment, they must simultaneously respect the movement of children to reunite with their families.

This year, the world witnessed a number of catastrophic natural disasters which include the floods in Pakistan. The independent expert on international solidarity, Mr. Rudi Muhammad Rizki, maintained the importance of coming together during such perilous times and post-conflict situations. Pointing to the fact that more than one billion people suffer from poverty and hunger, it shows that we are failing to live as a unified community. He also underlined that international solidarity is a broad subject that includes the topics of peace, environment, sustainable development, extraterritorial state obligations, and the upholding of UN obligations.

Of great debate was the Report of the International Fact-Finding Mission to Investigate Violations of International Law of the Flotilla incident. In front of the HRC, on September 27th 2010, the Mission was clear in its conclusion that a humanitarian crisis occurred on 31 May 2010.

During the three-week session, the first-ever Special Rapporteur on the freedom of assembly and association was created. This was a great step for the Human Rights Council, which is dominated by non-Western members who often silence such proposals. In the past, experts on human rights lamented the tendency of council members to vote in blocs rather than address issues individually. With the adoption of such legislation, it is a positive sign that things may change.

Other resolutions adopted include a special follow-up on the report of the independent international fact-finding mission on the Flotilla incident and a resolution on adequate housing. Many Special Procedure mandates were also extended for three years, such as those addressing the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Right to Health, Contemporary forms of Slavery, and Arbitrary Detention.

Turning to specific resolutions, the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women caused some of the most debate during the 15th Human Rights Council. The delegates from Colombia and Mexico introduced the draft resolution, which had co-sponsors from all regions and stated that 15 years after the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, women are still not equal before the law and practice. Quick to react, the delegation from Saudi Arabia sought the amending of words, which would ultimately weaken the bill. Though Norway and other delegations opposed the desired amendment, many delegations agreed with Saudi Arabia. After the vote, requested by the Mexican delegation, the draft resolution was adopted without amendments, and was met with great relief and applause by Council members.

During the 15th session, UPR reports were considered from the following countries: Spain, Kenya, Armenia, Lesotho, Belarus, Grenada, Guinea, Guyana, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Sweden, Turkey, and Guinea-Bissau. However, for the first time, a State, Kiribati, failed to present itself before the HRC for the adoption of its Working Group report. Of great concern to the Council, the absence of this delegation echoed the voices of those who critique the UPR procedure as being a "mere talk shop" and "praise- singing ceremony". As previously discussed in other sessions, while countries often face harsh criticisms during the UPR review, many nations respond that they are in fact adhering to human rights norms and respecting their international obligations. When critics are numerous, it is now a common practice that nations lobby and rally friendly delegations to provide a counterpoint to the criticisms they face. Far worse, is that these nations that come to the rescue of their colleagues, also represent countries with poor human rights records. During the review, recommendations are non-binding, and while the international community may assist, the country under review is free to implement changes as it sees fit. Also lacking, is a stronger emphasis that requires the country to report back on its progress. Though outlined as an element of the process, there are few repercussions for failing to comply.

The Independent Expert on the Situation of Human Rights in the Sudan

Mr. Mohammed Chande Othman has no easy task at hand, as the independent expert on the situation of human rights in Sudan. On Friday, the 17th of September, Mr. Othman presented his report to the Human Rights Council with praise and seemingly hesitant criticism. On a positive note, Othman was quick to commend Sudan's substantial progress regarding institutional and legislative reform. Mr. Othman stated that Sudan has taken positive strides towards democratic transformation and he applauded the country on recent legislation, which has been aimed to improve the human rights situation in the country. For example, the government recently implemented the Child Protection Act (CPA), which aims to protect against the recruitment or enlistment of soldiers under the age of 18. Mr. Othman also reported that in the recent general election in April 2010, voting went ahead peacefully in most places, as the disabled and imprisoned were able to participate.

Despite the efforts and measures taken by the Government towards democratic transformation, Mr. Othman emphasized that serious challenges remained in Sudan. Since his visit, the independent expert noted that, "a sharp turn towards political repression and restrictions on civil and political rights" had been present. Among his recommendations, the independent expert included the need for more police throughout Darfur, the implementation of a human rights commission, and was concerned about the re-application of the death penalty in a country where no minimal trial standards have been made.

As the General debate ensued, it was interesting to see the divide in opinion, regarding the extension of the IE's mandate. On the one hand, the OIC, NAM, and the African group agreed that Sudan had witnessed tangible and qualitative improvements. These groups hailed the CPA as a significant milestone to achieve peace in Sudan, and focused primarily on the recent elections as evidence to show the country's immense progress. They noted that Sudan's government has been able to gain the confidence of the domestic community and thus should be given the confidence of the international community. Rather than extend the mandate of the independent expert, these countries urged that previous donor states fulfill their financial promises to Sudan and that only "technical assistance" was still necessary. Each country and regional group of the OIC, NAM, and African group emphasized that there was no need of a one year extension on the IE's mandate, as enough had been achieved regarding the situation within the country.

On the other hand, members such as the U.S., the UK, and the regional group of the E.U. echoed each other's views that Sudan was a work in progress. They stressed the need of a one-year mandate extension, since much work was still necessary. Like the IE's report, they commended the Sudanese government for the steps it had taken to improve the human rights situation within the country, but reports of grave violations continued to cause growing concern. These countries called upon the government in Southern Sudan to improve its judiciary system, where the rule of law not well established. According to their claims, child soldiers continued to be used despite the progress of the CPA, and a lack of accountability was still present. A growing concern was focused on the fact that a national human rights commission was not yet established. Moreover, ongoing harassment and attacks on women, children, humanitarian actors, peacekeepers, human rights workers and journalists was a grave concern for these countries. Towards the end of the morning session, when the general debate was opened to NGOs, Human Rights Watch and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies continued to echo the call for an extended mandate, as they claimed many improvements within the country could still be made.

Clustered Interactive Dialogue with Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery and the chair of the Working Group on mercenaries.

In Mrs. Gulnara Shahinian opening speech, she stressed the importance of remembering the 12 million people that presently work and live in slave-like conditions and after her visits to Brazil, Ecuador and Mauritania she recommended the international community as well as all states individually to create a stronger legal framework for "slaves" or people working under unfair conditions. Poverty also needs to be minimized and there must be both short as well as long term support for the people victimized, as they are often unable to change their economic dependency by themselves. Thus people need to be empowered but social exclusion, as well as gender inequalities and children rights must also be fully addressed by the UN. Finally, domestic workers, especially individuals migrating from "south" to "north" need to have greater freedoms and laws to support them, as they are an extremely vulnerable group.

During the opening discussion, almost all delegations that decided to speak agreed with the report, especially states from the southern hemisphere. Poland for example, came with the good comment that cultural codes must be changed and the status of especially domestic workers needs to be raised for slavery to stop. ILO argued that more labor protection is needed and that everyone should be entitled to fair working conditions, especially migrant workers, which are an exposed group.

In Mrs. Amanda Benavides de Pérez opening speech she described the situations of mercenaries in the three countries, which she visited during an 18-month period, namely Afghanistan, USA and Guinea. She noticed that as more of these groups have become privatized, it has become a greater threat to upholding human rights, the UN system, as well as undermining state sovereignty and accountability. Therefore a new convention was drafted to act as a guideline on how to monitor, regulate and prosecute mercenaries, which would need universal consensus. However, all parties involved were not agreeing to the report as both the US and UK believed the report to be in the wrong forum and used vague definitions. Even so, most delegates urged for increased discussion to be able to fill the legal gap that exist today and create a common framework and laws to minimize privatized military and security groups.

A call for human rights council's decision action to stop violations by national security forces

The NGO Amnesty International held a side event on Sudan during the 15th session of the Human Rights Council. The meeting dealt with the issues human rights lawyers have to face while working in Sudan and the gross human rights record of the national security forces. The two-hour session contained both statements given by experts within the field as well as an open discussion between the panel and the viewers.

Human rights violations is occurring in Sudan all the time but NGOs, lawyers and other forms of human rights protectors have little access to the country, thus cannot show the world the full picture of its human rights record. The Lawyer Bar Association is not an independent organ in Sudan but is in fact controlled by the state, which makes it harder for lawyers to assist individual in abusive situations. In fact, independent lawyers have no way of making a living if they do not comply with the states opinions and therefore cannot help people in human rights cases as it puts themselves in a dangerous situation. Journalists face the same problem and are often harassed or detained and all aid organizations must work in the diaspora, as they do not have access to the country or are allowed to uphold their work there. Moreover, the national security forces endorse a climate of fear by committing crimes with no concerns for being prosecuted. There has never been a legal case against the security forces for its ill treatments of the Sudanese people even if it occurs on a daily basis.

During the open discussion the Sudanese delegates spoke for most of the time, admitting that some forms of human rights violation occur but nevertheless, not taking responsibility for the actions. However, both the panel and various individuals in the audience instead stated that human rights violations are very much taking place under the nose of the Sudanese government but there is no political will to end it as the government is neither accountable for its actions nor transparent to the international community and Sudanese people.

Clustered ID with IE on Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation and IE on Extreme Poverty

Mrs. Catarina de Albuquerque opened the dialogue by expressing her concern for all the people in the world not having access to adequate drinking water and sanitation; however, she also stressed that it should be up to each individual state to decide if providing the services or privatize parts or the entire industry. Nevertheless, monitoring the services are needed and the state should be in charge for ensuring the quality and making sure services meet existing laws and human rights standards. Also, the state should guarantee the services of water and sanitation to be democratic, reaching the poorest and being of good quality and affordable for all groups in society. All states that decided to voice their opinions agreed with the report but the British and Canadian delegations did not agree that water and sanitation is a right in itself but should be under the right to an adequate standard of living. Many delegations, especially South American delegations stressed the need for states to be in charge of water and sanitation and that the services should not be privatized, while the EU declared the importance for each state to be allowed to decide which form, private or public for providing water and sanitation.

Mrs. Maria Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona stated in her opening speech about Extreme Poverty that poverty must be addressed both at an international level as well as on a national and local level. Above all, the rights of women and the changes created by climate change must be further discussed and cultural barriers need to be removed. There must also be improved working conditions and increased minimum wages for people. The communities affected by extreme poverty are often unable to change their situation and therefore guidelines for states to lift people from poverty are needed but states must in the end fight poverty harder to see greater results. The delegation from Nepal voiced its opinion that the consequences and causes of poverty must also be further discussed to understand the relationship between extreme poverty and violence and other forms of human rights violations.

SR on Indigenous people (ID) and report of Exp. Mechanism on indigenous peoples

As Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples, Mr. James Anaya must encourage the promotion of good practices, while also bringing to light the abuses that these populations face. With too little representation at an international level, Mr. Anaya is concerned that this has reflected itself at a national level. Too often, when a government convenes to discuss the rightful land and resources of these indigenous peoples, they are left in the dark. With the inability to make their voices heard, their rights are often infringed upon when it comes to issues of territory.

During his report to the Council, Mr. Anaya touched upon his concerns after visiting Guatemala, Botswana, Australia and the Russian Federation. Following these visits, he wanted to stress the importance of making corporations aware of their responsibilities to protect the rights of indigenous peoples. On a similar note, he challenged the Council to question why indigenous people are still being marginalized and harassed for their ethnic belonging.

From the delegations who took the floor, the general response to the SR on indigenous peoples was positive. The only minor disagreement faced, was the specific spelling of certain phrases. For example, some delegations disagreed with the inclusion of the "s" at the end of indigenous peoples, and instead wanted it in its singular form. Nevertheless, many delegations were in consensus that more can be done to integrate and promote indigenous peoples on all political, economic, social, and cultural levels. Another general agreement was the importance of improved schooling and healthcare to better secure the well-being of indigenous peoples.

The NGOs, on the other hand, were not as optimistic for the implementation of the rights of indigenous peoples. Like the International Indian Treaty Council noted, until their rights are secured at the national level, the old colonial relationship of taking from the indigenous peoples will continue. Without greater implementation and action by national actors, these minority populations will be forced off their land and discriminated at all levels of society.

Annual Discussion on Integration of Gender Perspectives

During the 3rd panel on gender perspectives, the HRC discussed how well gender perspectives and equalities have been integrated within the UN framework and within the Human Rights Council. The panel was composed of Ms. Kyung-Wha Kang, the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights; professor Emmanuel Decaux, Member of the HRC Advisory Committee; Mr. Roberto Garretón, Member of the HRC Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; Ms. Cynthia Rothschild, Independent Gender Expert; and finally Ms. Jane Hodges, the Director of the Gender Equality Bureau of the ILO.

The panelists spoke about the necessity to integrate women in all areas of the UN and the Human rights process, especially with the help of UN WOMEN. They discussed the importance of focusing on women as an exposed group in society by analyzing the gaps that exist in the administrative, legal, cultural and economic sector. In doing so, a female oriented approach could be accomplished and the rights of women would be strengthened. Another recommendation from the panelist would be the nomination of women, especially from the developing parts of the world, to high positions within the UN. This initiative could help abolish discriminative gender practices and significantly improve the situation of women from their respective countries. If women take part in the decision-making process, both at a national and international level, it could significantly alter the traditional views on female work. Regarding due process, the legal rights of women must be strengthened and unjust trials eliminated. Other forms of discrimination, including the inequalities in education, health care, and opportunities must also be abolished.

During the interactive dialogue, delegations urged the UN to combat stereotyping, trafficking, domestic and sexual violence to promote and protect women. The delegations from Costa Rica called for greater social, economic, and cultural rights of women, while the delegations from Argentina and the Philippines would like to see more dialogue and reporting between UN agencies. Many NGOs agreed with the statements given by the delegations, but added that better follow-up procedures are necessary.

Report of the Fact Finding Mission (ID), Report of Committee of Experts (ID) & General debate under Item 7

Human Rights Situation in Palestine

Operation Cast Lead was launched on December 27, 2008 as an Israeli response to the ongoing and prolonged rocket fire by Gaza militants. In response, the United Nations established a special Committee to handle and report on subsequent human rights violations in the Israeli occupied territories. The Report of the Fact Finding Mission, headed by Mr. Christian Tomuschat, was presented to the HRC on 27 September 2010.

While Mr. Tomuschat stated that the committee had received two reports of human rights violations from the Palestinian leaders, he regretted that Israel had not allowed access to the areas in question. In addition, Israel had not produced reports nor conducted any independent investigations on the violations of international and human rights laws during the three-week war in 2008-2009. On the other hand, he pointed out that Israel has taken steps towards improving the situation in the occupied territories, such as protecting civilians in urban warfare and creating a new order for destruction of private property. Mr. Tomuschat concluded his opening speech by calling on all parties to cooperate with the UN system, human rights laws and conduct themselves in an accountable and transparent manner.

When Israel took the floor, it pointed out that it is a unique democratic state, which has met threats and challenges from its neighbours since its birth in 1948. As such, Israel must therefore have the right to self-defence. Bearing this in mind, Israel has often shown a willingness to conduct military investigations and allow reports to be carried out, even if there are other far worse human rights offences occurring in the world. The Palestinian representative on the other hand, regretted the lack of corporation, transparency and accountability from the Israeli side. The representative called for the Fact Finding Mission's mandate to be extended and for the international community to help establish a Palestinian state.

During the general debate, a majority of the delegations sided with the Palestinians, welcoming its desire to cooperate with the Fact Finding Mission while simultaneously condemning Israeli behaviour. They also called upon Israel to follow international and human rights laws, allow independent investigations, and implement previous recommendations and resolutions such as those in the Goldstone report. The Syrian Arab Republic on behalf of the Arab Group, Pakistan on behalf of the OIC, Egypt, Cuba, Yemen, Turkey, Iraq, Malaysia and many more delegations condemned Israel's behaviour. They called for the Palestinians right to self-determination, the freezing of all settlements, the removal of road blocs and the separation-wall, and the ending of the blockade on Gaza. Moreover, they called for impunity to end and the need to bring Israeli leaders under justice for war crimes committed in the Occupied Territories. Towards the end of the General Debate, the Russian Federation, the United States, Belgium and other delegations expressed their desire to see the violence end, including the killing of Israeli civilians by rockets as well as the arbitrary killings of Palestinians.

When the NGOs took the floor, a more profound disapproval of all parties involved was voiced, as both the UN Watch and Amnesty International noticed the lack of accountability, transparency and independency on both sides. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, as well as the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, voiced their opinion that impunity is what fuels the conflict. All parties involved, including states not in question, must uphold their promises to uphold human rights within their country. Finally, the European Union of Jewish Students ended by stating that by singling out the only Jewish state in the world in a special session, the HRC is unbalanced and biased in its approach towards human rights. Instead, the body should focus on the human rights situation of the Palestinian people in all countries in which they reside, and also address the threats Jews in Europe face everyday.

Report of the International Fact-Finding Mission to Investigate Violations of International Law

After the tragic events of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla on 31 May, the UN Human Rights Council established an independent international fact-finding mission to investigate violations of international law. This three-person Mission were composed of Karl Hudson-Phillips, a retired Judge of the International Criminal; Sir Desmond de Silva, former Chief Prosecutor of the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone; and Ms. Mary Shanthi Dairiam, a specialist on international women’s rights. With the help of external specialists, the Mission began its work on 9 August and recently concluded in mid-September 2010.

In front of the HRC, on September 27th 2010, the Mission was clear in its conclusion that a humanitarian crisis occurred on 31 May 2010. According to the preponderance of evidence, it was too evident to argue otherwise. One of the primary reasons that supported these findings is that “the blockade alone is unlawful and cannot be sustained in law”. Secondly, the action and reasons of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) for intercepting the ship were unlawful.

According to the Israeli government, it seeks to justify the blockade on security grounds in terms of self-defense. They specifically point to the firing of rockets and other munitions into Israel from Gaza, as it demonstrates serious violations of international and international humanitarian law. In response, the Mission claimed that this collective punishment of the civilian population in Gaza is not lawful in any circumstance. Rather, the conduct of the IDF and other personnel towards the flotilla passengers was disproportionate and demonstrated levels of unnecessary and incredible brutality. More specifically, the Mission presented information that the IDF violated Article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

From these findings, the Mission hopes that there will be cooperation from the Israeli government to assist in the identification of those responsible. They are hopeful that the Israeli government will prosecute those guilty and bring closure to the situation. One of the Mission's greatest concerns, is the deep psychological scars that have been inflicted on the survivors. The Mission is hopeful that compensation will be provided to the families of victims and action is taken by the Israeli government.

When the delegates took the floor, it was interesting to see two distinctive perspectives. Both the United States and Israel echoed their sentiments that the report was biased. Israel called the Council a place where they are too often bullied and accused, when other member states are guilty of far worse human rights violations. The United States brought up the current peace talks between Israel and Palestine, and their hope that this distraction would not impede the achievements made by both sides. Members of the OIC, NAM, and the African Group made statements calling for a two-state solution, the removal of the Gaza blockade, and greater efforts for Israel to comply with international inquiries. Nations such as Japan and Bangladesh called for the greater involvement of the HRC regarding the people of Gaza, while Saudi Arabia called on Israel to uphold its international responsibilities to suffering civilians in the Gaza territory.

Two NGOs, North South XXI, and Mouvement Contre le Racisme et Pour L'Amitié called for the creation of a special tribunal to prosecute those responsible for the flotilla incident. UN Watch noted that resolution 41 contained a certain bias and questioned the report for ignoring facts provided by its organization.

Item 9, SR on Racism & WG on African Descent

While the United Nations is trying to combat racism and intolerance, a majority of the delegations during the opening discussion on item 9 voiced a concern that hate-crimes, racism, discrimination and other forms of intolerance are growing around the world. The delegation from Cuba stated that the industrial north is both intolerant and discriminatory in its policies and attitudes towards minorities. The Israeli delegation further disliked the way its country is portrayed as the symbol of evil and all the worlds' problems, which further fuels anti-Semitism. The Holy Sea also voiced its opinion that freedom of religion must be strengthened but criticism must still be accepted.

The Russian Federation and the delegate from the United States urged civil society and the international community to eliminate their negative attitudes towards other religions and cultures. Delegates from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran called for greater openness towards the Islamic community by restricting the media and civil society to depict offensive statements and images on their religion. The Turkish delegation also voiced its hopes for civil society to promote a climate of equality and tolerance rather than fuelling hatred and stereotypes.

The NGO, Fraternite Notre Dame, stated that minorities in all states are forced to play the role of scapegoats to justify national problems. International Islamic Federation of Student Organizations (IIFSO) criticized India for not promoting equal rights to all its citizens, especially those of lower castes. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies concluded the discussion by stating that states should be condemned for criminalizing bloggers and musicians in the Middles East, based on their religion.

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